LONDON – The likelihood of all-out war in central Europe has increased after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he is siding with pro-Russian rebels staking a claim to large swathes of the territory of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, imagery released by commercial satellite companies appears to confirm claims made by Western intelligence agencies that Russian troops continue to mass around Ukraine’s borders and that preparations continue to be made for a massive invasion of Ukraine, engaging almost 200,000 Russian soldiers.
Mr Putin stunned the world on Monday (Feb 21) by announcing that two rebel enclaves – Donetsk and Luhansk – that have operated on Ukrainian soil for years are now to be recognised by Russia as supposedly independent states.
The move was widely condemned as a violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and as contrary to all the established norms of international law.
And it led to the collapse of all Western diplomatic efforts to engage in a dialogue with Russia.
“Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries?” an angry United States President Joe Biden asked on Tuesday, while announcing new American sanctions on Russian banks and a few wealthy individuals close to the Russian President.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also cancelled a meeting planned on Thursday with Mr Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart.
Washington said Mr Blinken “will not allow Russia to claim the pretence of diplomacy at the same time it accelerates its march down the path of conflict and war”.
The biggest question currently preoccupying Western governments is whether the recognition of the separatist regions represents the sum total of President Putin’s hostile actions for the moment and may be followed by measures to defuse the crisis, or whether lending Russia’s support to the rebels inside Ukraine is just a step in a bigger Russian offensive.
No clear answer to this was possible until Mr Putin clarified what precisely he meant by recognising the rebel statelets.
The self-appointed, Russian-supported leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk enclaves have claimed as their own not only the territories they control, but also the rest of the two Ukrainian administrative regions that bear the same names but include territories that remain under the undisputed control of the Ukrainian government.
In recognising the enclaves, Russia, therefore, had two options: either treat the statelets within their current effective borders or support the separatist leaders’ pretences to rule entire Ukrainian counties.